In India it is almost impossible to have everyone agree on anything. We have our opinions on virtually all matters- whether or not we know anything about the issue is of little consequence. Thus the good old Addas ( an expression used in Kolkata for gathering of friends in street corners, tea shops, verandas etc. where there is endless discussion on local/ national/international affairs, politics, sports, films, literature, religion and spirituality etc. etc. ) are extremely colorful spaces with high decibel levels and heated exchanges of both ideas and feelings. Invariably, these Addas do not lead to any final outcome. Nor do they end with bitter acrimony. They usually end when they reach a point which all parties can “live with” and are willing to give up/postpone their need to establish the supremacy of their view point.
I have come to believe that this is the only viable way of living with differences in the Indian context, if we wish to retain our ethos of diversity and plurality. I have called it the principle of relative consensus i.e. some thing around which there may not be complete consensus but something that every one can live with. This is fundamentally different from the concept of “majority rule”. Majority rule is a quantitative construct whereas the principle of Relative Consensus has a strong qualitative dimension.Let me illustrate the difference with a help of an example.
Imagine a situation where 5 people have to chose between two alternatives- A &B. Let us say three of them prefer A and two prefer B. In such a situation by the logic of majority rule, A will be considered the obvious choice. However let us add another dimension wherein we also consider their orientation towards the alternative which they rejected. Let us say the three people who preferred A have no serious reservations about B, and only a slight preference for alternative A. On the other hand the two people who have opted for B have serious reservations about alternative A. Needless to say, this input changes the situation dramatically whereby B becomes the superior alternative as all five can comfortably live with it. Undoubtedly it will leave the three people who preferred A somewhat disappointed but it will not sow the seeds of major strife in the group which alternative A would.
I also believe that one of the main factors which has enabled the flowering of diversity in India is that it has tended to rely more on the principle of Relative Consensus rather than Majority Rule. The very notion of Panch Parmeshwar is based on this principle. Note that Parmeshwar (divinity) is associated with them as a collective of five. They are not 5 separate individuals but one coherent whole which strives to search for the Relative Consensus that everyone can live with.
I have tried to put together some of the main ingredients/prerequisites of this principle-
Providing space for expression of all view points no matter how miniscule a minority they represent
- Dialogue with a spirit of understanding the “other” and making oneself understood rather than establishing the supremacy of one’s own view point
- Sensitivity to “non-negotiables” of the involved parties and ensuring that the dialogue does not get entrenched in the conflict between these “non-negotiables (e.g. Territorial integrity vs. freedom of expression)
- Attempting to arrive at a position which all parties can live with even if they do not fully subscribe to it.
- Treating majority rule as a last resort and holding it as a collective failure (of not having been able to arrive at a workable consensus ) and not as a victory for some and defeat for others.
Needless to say the principle of relative consensus is a messy affair. Its major draw back is that it tends to reinforce the “status quo” and allows for only incremental change, as we have witnessed in case of Indian civilization. It is much simpler to count the numbers and then gag the minority voice. In that sense majority rule is as oppressive and despotic as any other form of dictatorship with the added advantage of moral legitimacy derived from the collective mandate. There is perhaps an inverse relationship between the principle of relative consensus and the speed at which we can move. It is therefore not surprising that generally people who are concerned primarily with techno-economic progress, tend to prefer despotic regimes (even if they are structural democracies like Singapore) where there is greater uniformity and order and where things can move fast.
The other main difficulty with the principle of relative consensus is that it reinforces the structural inequities of the system. This too we have witnessed in case of Indian civilization. Thus people who are struggling against these inequities (e.g. Caste system) will understandably feel impatient with the snail’s speed with which we seem to be moving.
The central point that I wish to make is that while principle of relative consensus has played a stellar role in our success of living with differences, it has also hampered us particularly in the areas of techno-economic progress and in our struggle against the baggage that we have received from our heritage. We can not wish away this tension but must face it squarely. Needless to say, no resolution of this tension will be fully satisfactory but are we willing to engage with the difficulties which are inherent in a diverse, pluralistic society which also wishes to be progressive and also has considerable historical baggage to deal with. If we do then some of the prerequisites would be that –
- We stop beating each other either in the name of Deshdroh or in the name of Manuvaad.
- We learn to be sensitive to the context and compulsions of different parts of this plural society
- We learn to recognize the need for coherence and convergence in our togetherness without diluting the distinctiveness of each other. Perhaps the metaphor of a “salad bowl” (where each constituent retains its distinctive identity and yet there is a coherent whole) is much more relevant for us than the metaphor of a “melting pot” where each part becomes like any other.
- We learn to grace our shared civilizational heritage and acknowledge both its gifts and burdens
- We develop our own narrative of economic progress and stay clear of meaningless race of becoming a super-power
- We develop our own narrative of a just and equitable society and align constructs such as individual freedom, democracy, secularism etc. to our context and predispositions, and finally
- We revisit some of the non-negotiables in which we have entrenched ourselves
Perhaps there are many other items which can be added to this list, but it is already seeming like a pipe dream of a romantic idealist. For whatever it is worth ,I don’t think we have any other choice if we wish to stay clear of the royal road to self-destruction